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Dismantle NYC’s Mass Surveillance Project — Start With Jail Recordings

In New York City, thousands of calls between incarcerated people and their legal teams were illegally recorded.

Incarcerated people make one of their daily allotment of six phone calls at the York Community Reintegration Center, part of the York Correctional Institution, on May 24, 2016, in Niantic, Connecticut. In nearly all jails around the country, phone calls are recorded and surveilled.

Mass public surveillance is becoming a threat in everyday life, with big tech corporations digitally tracking our every move. For incarcerated people, surveillance is even more intrusive.

In the last year, the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) illegally recorded more than 1,500 privileged calls between people incarcerated in its jails and their attorneys. Many of these illegal recordings were turned over to prosecutors.

This blatant constitutional violation has critical and disproportionate impacts. Three-quarters of people incarcerated in New York City jails are awaiting trial and many are held solely because they cannot afford bail. More than 90 percent are Black and Brown, thanks to discriminatory police and prosecution practices and the fact that the U.S.’s criminal legal system is constructed on a foundation of white supremacy.

Behind these illegal recordings looms a scandal-plagued surveillance-tech-company-turned-DOC-phone-service-provider: Securus Technologies. The city’s contract with Securus expired on March 31. Yet, despite this scandal and the many others plaguing the vendor nationwide, the DOC quietly extended its relationship with Securus for another year.

The city’s decision to do so highlights the threat our ballooning surveillance apparatus poses to New Yorkers’ civil liberties and rights. A critical first step to ensure that neither our privacy nor our dignity are for sale would be to end the universal recording of jail calls.

As a public defender, I am intimately aware of the crushing isolation that comes with being charged with criminal wrongdoing and caged on a remote island. Cut off from support structures, separated from loved ones and subjected to intense situational stress, New Yorkers who are detained in city jails rely on phone calls to stay in contact with their spouses, children and other loved ones. The phone is the singular lifeline for solace, counsel and advice.

But phone calls — free of charge since 2019 thanks to local advocacy — come at a dehumanizing and devastating cost: the sacrifice of privacy, intimacy and dignity. Every call made to a spouse, parent or child is recorded. There are no exceptions: not for calls to ask your mother for advice on your case; not for calls to talk through your spouse’s medical test results; not for calls to receive news that a younger sibling has passed. Every call is recorded.

It is easy to imagine that jail calls have always been recorded and that this type of dehumanizing surveillance is essential to public safety. Neither is true.

For decades, when law enforcement suspected that someone was a jail security threat or planning a crime, they had to apply for an eavesdropping warrant with the requisite evidence. However flawed the eavesdropping warrant regime is, there at least were oversight mechanisms under this system. The warrant requirement for call recording in New York City jails was blanketly eliminated in 2008 — at a time when the city’s crime rates were low and declining — with a simple administrative rule change by the Board of Correction. Their primary justification? “Everyone else is doing it.”

This rule change opened the door for today’s universal recording practice, which solidifies the biased impact of surveillance: Those who cannot afford bail also cannot afford their right against self-incrimination.

Years later, in 2014, Securus doubled down on privacy invasion when it began “voice printing” everyone in DOC custody. Simply put, a voice print is a visual representation of an individual’s speech pattern. A biometric (like finger and faceprints), voice prints are used to attempt to identify participants in call recordings. Not only was Securus voice printing incarcerated people, but the company also began tagging and tracking the voice of anyone receiving a call from a New York City jail. Those voice prints along with the call recordings — to the tune of 30,000 per day — are saved to Securus’s databases. With data being today’s most lucrative commodity, Securus is creating a new product line out of the voices of my clients, their loved ones and myself.

The revelation that Securus has been illegally recording phone calls between people incarcerated on Rikers Island and their attorneys is just the latest in a long line of public scandals involving the company. For illegally recording privileged calls alone, Securus has been sued across the country, from California to Texas, and from Kansas to Maine.

New York City must terminate its contract with Securus. Sadly though, the problem is not limited to just one spy-tech vendor. Many of the same concerns are raised by the city’s relationship with other corporations like Vigilant Solutions, Dataminr, Palantir and Clearview AI. The recording of jail calls is one example of the city’s misguided investment in covert surveillance programs, which include the monitoring of New Yorkers’ movements, social media activity and other highly personal information.

These surveillance activities impact not only the specific targets of the surveillance, but also their families, friends and communities. New York must dismantle its biased mass surveillance project. Eliminating universal jail call recording is a good first step.

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